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Lack of engagement from unregistered Jewish schools makes safeguarding impossible, Hackney Commissioner tells child abuse inquiry

Trying to engage unregistered Charedi Jewish schools with child safeguarding procedures is ‘like playing whack-a-mole’ and it is impossible to map the full extent of the problem, the Independent Child Safeguarding Commissioner for Hackney has told a high profile inquiry into child abuse.

In a statement to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), Commissioner Jim Gamble criticised the Government’s lack of progress on the regulation of unregistered schools and said that, while his safeguarding team had encountered issues with a range of different religious groups, the Charedi Jewish community is particularly resistant to engagement.

Humanists UK –  which leads the national campaign against illegal religious schools and was responsible for exposing the problem via various media exposés – said Mr Gamble’s alarming statement demonstrates exactly why tighter regulation on unregistered schools is required and called on the Government to take urgent action.

Speaking of his experiences of visiting unregistered Yeshivas – Jewish schools that provide only an extremely narrow religious curriculum, often in inappropriate, unsafe buildings – Mr Gamble told Inquiry Chair Fiona Scolding, of finding ‘between 140 and 200 young boys in an environment where we cannot reassure ourselves that the security is appropriate.’ He went on to describe how, in some settings, he was able to  ‘walk in without being challenged’ and has found issues such as locked fire escapes and what appear to be terraced houses with internal walls knocked through to accommodate large numbers of pupils.

‘When you try and engage with those who are hosting that particular facility, you meet obstruction. In fact, in some cases that I’m personally aware of, slightly worse than that: no-one can tell you who is present, no-one can give you the idea about numbers.’ Mr Gamble said.

When they have a religious character, illegal schools tend to provide a curriculum that is extremely narrow in scope. They are also typically unsafe, with reports citing problems such as unqualified, unvetted teachers; corporal punishment; inadequate safeguarding; and serious health and safety problems, including rat traps in classrooms, holes in walls, and exposed electrics. Indeed, earlier this year, Chief Inspector of Schools Amanda Spielman also gave evidence to the Inquiry, highlighting similar issues to those described by Mr Gamble.

Despite these multiple and serious failures, loopholes in the law allow settings that only provide religious instruction to claim they are not schools and thus avoid proper regulation and oversight. The Government has acknowledged that this should be addressed and recently launched a public consultation on measures designed to close loopholes in the law that allow illegal schools to continue operating. However, the consultation process was abruptly suspended as a result of the coronavirus crisis, and it is not yet understood when it will run again.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham said: 

‘For many years, Humanists UK has campaigned for tighter regulations on illegal and unregistered schools. Mr Gamble’s alarming descriptions of some of these settings demonstrate exactly why this reform is so vital. It is simply intolerable that thousands of children are being put at risk of serious harm but the relevant authorities are powerless to do anything about it.

‘Earlier this year, the Government proposed legal changes that would go a considerable way towards addressing the problem. These included a broader definition of what constitutes full-time education that would mean unregistered yeshivas would no longer be able to pretend not to be schools because of the narrow form of instruction they provide. Unfortunately, the consultation on these proposals was paused due to the pandemic. However, we are now calling on the Government to restart this process and ensure that the protection of children at risk in these settings is treated as a matter of urgency.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Ruth Wareham at ruth@humanism.org.uk or phone 020 7324 3000 or 0772 511 0860.

Read our most recent article on the illegal schools investigated by Ofsted since September 2019

Read our article on the ‘manifesto for corporal punishment’ endorsed by religious leaders

Read our article on our response to the public consultation on tightening the law on illegal schools

Read our latest article on why Government must move fast in crackdown on illegal schools

Read more about Ofsted’s frustration on Government inaction on illegal schools

Read more about our work on illegal schools

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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